Kindle Paperwhite review: Kindle Paperwhite shines

The Paperwhite borrows some aspects of its user interface from the Kindle Fire, such as the toggle metaphor for displaying content. The cover view interface has a more vibrant appearance, for black and white, anyway, and overall its UI is slicker than that of earlier Kindles, which was praised for being simple, but also pretty bland.

Amazon says that even with the "lightguide" layer on top of the screen to even out the lighting, it's managed to increase the contrast by 25 percent. Obviously, this number is hard for us to measure, but text does appear to be a tad darker than the text on the Touch. And as far as pixels go, the 212ppi comes out to 62 percent more pixels than you'll find on the Kindle Touch.

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E-ink: Same benefits, same drawbacks
To be clear, as much as I liked the Paperwhite's screen, it is still an e-ink screen. That means it has all the same benefits -- and all the same caveats generally apply.

As with all such e-readers, the Paperwhite still shows a subtle "ghosting" of the previous page. That lasts for five or six page turns, and then you get a black-on-white "flash" as the screen resets itself. Page turns are much faster -- and flashes are far less frequent -- than in the early days of e-ink, and I barely even notice the ghosting. But at least one colleague said that's a reason he prefers reading on an LCD tablet (such as an iPad or Kindle Fire) instead.

On the other other hand, the Paperwhite -- like all e-ink readers -- still trumps LCD tablets like the iPad for reading outdoors and in other situations where glare is a concern. You can read the Paperwhite outside on a sunny day that would render a tablet or smartphone screen all but unreadable.

Battery life
The other key factor in all of these e-ink devices is battery life, an area where Amazon and Barnes & Noble have been fiercely duking it out for supremacy. Remarkably, Amazon says you can get up to eight weeks of battery life from the Paperwhite with the light on at half brightness, based on 30 minutes of use a day with Wi-Fi off. That's about double the Nook GlowLight's numbers. Having only used the review sample for a few days, I can't vouch for any of that; I'll report back in a few weeks.

Side view of the device. Sarah Tew/CNET

Amazon isn't giving a number for how many days or months you'd get with light and Wi-Fi off. That's because it expects people will use the light almost all the time, though it obviously doesn't make sense to turn it on when you're outdoors in bright sunlight.

Additional features
Aside from the new UI, the other notable feature worth mentioning is that this Kindle keeps track of your reading speed and can tell you how long it will take to finish a chapter or the rest of the book. The device "learns" your average reading speed over time and makes its calculations based on that average. I'm not sure whether Amazon will add this to its earlier models (I'll confirm it either way when I know), but it's certainly a nifty feature.

Also, this model (unlike the $69 Kindle) has Amazon's X-Ray feature. For many books, it lets you view the so-called "bones of the book" and see all the passages across the book that mention relevant ideas, fictional characters, historical figures, places, or topics of interest. Amazon has added X-Ray for movies as part of Amazon Instant Video on the Kindle Fire devices, and I'd say it's more compelling in that application. That said, it can be useful for sprawling epics like George R. R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series, which has more characters to keep track of than your high-school graduating class.

Amazon's X-Ray feature. Sarah Tew/CNET

The other key features of the Paperwhite are related to the Amazon "ecosystem." In addition to offering a wider range of titles than competing online bookstores, Amazon lets you access the e-books you buy on almost any platform. Kindle apps are available for iPad, iPhone, Android phones and tablets (including Amazon's Kindle Fire tablets), and through any Web browser. In other words, even if you end up moving to different hardware platforms, you'll always be able to read your Kindle books.

Beyond books, the Kindle can be used to read most magazines and newspapers as well -- though you'll need to specifically subscribe to a Kindle version. Amazon also offers a cool "send to Kindle" plug-in for Google Chrome that lets you send any Web page to the Kindle for later reading; basically a free version of Instapaper.

As mentioned above, the Kindle Paperwhite has an "experimental" Web browser. It works well enough, but -- trust us -- you don't want to use the Paperwhite as your primary device for accessing the Web; step up to a Kindle Fire or other tablet if that's a priority.

One feature missing from the Paperwhite is audio: Amazon has removed the audio support that was available in the Kindle Touch. While that may be a bummer for audiobook fans, I think that most users probably get their audio fix from a smartphone or tablet these days, anyway. It's also worth mentioning that while Amazon sells an AC adapter separately, the Paperwhite doesn't come with one, just a Micro-USB cable for charging. That means you'll have charge the Kindle via your computer or use a wall-plug adapter from a device you already own. Somewhat annoying, but you probably have a drawer full of compatible Micro-USB chargers.

Side note: When Amazon initially released the Kindle Touch you couldn't switch from portrait to landscape mode and a lot of people complained about that (mostly people who read with large font sizes). Amazon did not repeat that mistake with the Paperwhite; when reading a book you can toggle between portrait and landscape mode. However, the menu option is only accessible in reading mode, not from the home screen.

Library loaners
If you're a subscriber to Amazon Prime ($79 per year), you already get free two-day shipping for Amazon orders, and thousands of free streaming-video titles from Amazon. On the Kindle Paperwhite and other hardware Kindles, you also get access to the Amazon Lending Library. That lets you "check out" thousands of titles (albeit one at a time) at no additional charge. The list has more than 200,000 titles, but -- fair warning -- many aren't exactly mainstream, popular titles.

You can also borrow e-books from most local libraries on the Kindle, as you can with other e-book readers.

Various models
As with the Kindle Touch, the Paperwhite will come in a few different versions. The base Special Offers (ad-supported) model with Wi-Fi only costs $119. A Wi-Fi plus 3G Special Offers model will run you $179; the 3G service, from AT&T, is bundled for free and will work around the world. Amazon also offers ad-free versions of those two models, though those are not terribly popular with consumers. You can also "buy out" of the ads for $20 at any time, so it's best to start with the ad-supported one. The ads are occasionally tacky, but they only show up on the screensaver (when the device is off) and on a small strip on the home screen -- they never interrupt the reading experience.

All Paperwhite models have 2GB of built-in memory, 1GB of it usable for storage, and unlike the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight, it doesn't have an expansion slot for additional memory. That's a shame, but expected. Amazon says you can store up to 1,000 books on the device, but since purchases are stored in the cloud, too, users will be more likely to move content on and off the device. The bottom line is that this thing will store more books than you'll ever need to read at any one time.

The reviewer reading. Sarah Tew/CNET

Conclusion
In the end, I didn't find a whole lot to complain about. Yeah, it would be nice if the Paperwhite were a little bit lighter. As I said in the intro, it weighs 7.5 ounces. However, if, for instance, you add Amazon's nice Leather Cover -- it better be nice for $40! -- which has a magnetic on/off feature, you end up at around 13 ounces. For some, that will seem a tad weighty, so shaving off a couple ounces should be a priority for Amazon when it makes the next-generation Paperwhite. Easier said than done, of course.

But that minor gripe aside, overall this is a big step forward for the Kindle e-ink line. It's very tricky to create and produce these types of e-ink readers with built-in lighting, and like Barnes & Noble's Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight, this product took many months of development by engineers. What's tricky is lighting the screen uniformly by adding that extra "lightguide" layer to the screen, without reducing the contrast. In this case, there's also the added complexity of moving to a capacitive touch screen.

Both the Paperwhite and Nook GlowLight are excellent e-readers at $119, but the Paperwhite's light is implemented slightly better and the addition of the higher-resolution screen and capacitive touch technology are other pluses in its favor. Rest assured, Barnes & Noble will eventually add a higher-resolution display to its GlowLight model and tweak the GlowLight for the better.

But for the moment, the Kindle Paperwhite has jumped to the head of the e-reader pack. It may not be perfect, but it's definitely the Kindle a lot of people have been waiting for.

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Quick Specifications See All

  • Release date Oct 1, 2012
  • Wireless Connectivity IEEE 802.11b
  • Weight 7.8 oz
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